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Refugees in Greek limbo fear return to Turkey

As the EU and Turkey discuss a plan that would see migrants returned to Turkey, many asylum seekers already in Greece say they would resist such an outcome at all costs. Pavlos Zafiropoulos reports from Athens.

On Tuesday afternoon, 20-plus children sat around plastic tables in a large communal tent in a refugee camp in the rural area of Ritsona about an hour's drive north of Athens. Less than two weeks ago this camp did not exist. It, like a number of others, was set up on the fly by the military in recent days. Indeed only a couple of hours earlier a bulldozer was compacting the gravel floor on which the children and their families now crunched back and forth.

The children had been given paper and pens donated by locals and invited to draw. The activity was intended as a diversion to while away the long hours of inactivity that are the rule in such facilities. Yet at the same time the incipient drawings were being eyed as potentially useful by the camp's organizers. Several busloads of refugees were due to arrive later in the day and a plan was made to hang the children's drawings at the camp's gates to help convince the newcomers that this was a welcoming place to stay.

The organizers were hoping to avoid a repeat of the previous day when the first 500-odd Syrian and Iraqi refugees were bussed to the camp from Piraeus. On arriving, roughly half of the new arrivals refused to enter, instead opting to walk the 60 kilometers back to Athens (they were later picked up and taken to an alternate location). With many still harboring hopes of continuing their journeys to northern Europe, they had been dismayed by the camp's isolation.

"We want to help them understand that this is the best they will find in Greece right now," Andreas Zambetas told DW, a volunteer with a local solidarity group which has been tasked with the day-to-day running of the camp. Indeed, that is largely the case.

The camp can house roughly 1,000 people in eight-person tents located in a forest clearing. Three meals are offered per day, prepared by army kitchens, and several rows of chemical toilets and (cold) showers are available. Metal drums dot the camp for wood fires for warmth and residents have access to a doctor and donated clothes, toys and supplies. The facilities are certainly bare-bone and isolated, but on the surface they are certainly better compared to the muddy squalor of the camp at the border crossing of Idomeni, or the dismal and overcrowded conditions at facilities hosting refugees and migrants in Piraeus and Athens. With over 40,000 refugees and migrants to house and rising, this is indeed the best Greece can currently offer.

kids playing football Copyright: Pavlos Zafiropoulos, Athens

Many refugees feel even more isolated in the newly opened camp in Ritsona

Yet for now many refugees have been reluctant to go to camps like the one in Ritsona, often even preferring to sleep rough. This is because they see them for what they are: remote temporary camps that could very easily become the end of the line for them even as their goal remains to head north. Roughly 12,000 refugees and migrants remain at the border camp in Idomeni despite pleas - including from Tsipras himself - for them to abandon the area for other cleaner and safer camps.

Their reluctance to comply with the government's planning - however rudimentary that may be - creates yet another headache for the Tsipras administration in handling the crisis. It also raises questions as to how workable any plan to return large numbers of migrants to Turkey could be.

The refugees will have their say

Amid all of the discussion about the putative agreement between the EU and Turkey, few have dwelt on how the migrants themselves would react to such an agreement eventually being struck.

Watch video 02:17

Q&A on EU-Turkey deal

Yet this is no small matter. In the camps throughout Greece the migrants are acutely aware of the importance of this week's EU-Turkey summit. And there is deep disquiet over any deal that would see migrants returned from Greece to Turkey.

"When we first heard [about the agreement] my whole family was crying. It was the worst thing we had heard since we left Iraq, it was unbelievable," 26-year-old Salim told DW at the Retsona camp. He and 29 members of his extended family are currently residing in the camp, anxiously awaiting the outcome of the summit. They are Yazidis from the town of Sinjar in Iraq who fled the area which came under the occupation of IS forces in 2014. Salim, like many other refugees says they saw no way that they could live in Turkey.

"They don't help, they don't want to help." He recounts daily fear living in Istanbul as a refugee and numerous instances of indifference, cruelty and corruption on the part of the Turkish authorities. The only reason they made it to the Turkish coast to get a boat to Greece, he says, is because a Turkish policeman accepted a $500 bribe to let them through. As such he says he is highly doubtful Turkey will live up to any pledge to treat returning refugees in accordance with international law.

Chalid, a Syrian Kurd travelling with his wife and four children, is similarly bleak. He says prior to coming to Greece he lived in Turkey for two years working 12 hour days - necessarily illegally - often being denied pay by his employers. "If you are in Iraq or Syria there is a chance you will die but it is only once. In Turkey you die 1,000 deaths. I prefer to die than go back to Turkey," he told DW. It is not an uncommon sentiment in Ritsona, nor in other refugee camps.

kid standing next to barbed wire fence © Getty Images/AFP/D. Dilkoff

Caught in a trap: Life in Idomeni has become unbearable but is Turkey a better option?

Unpredictable consequences

Many international observers have argued that the forced return of asylum seekers in Greece to Turkey would be illegal. But even if the legal technicalities were effectively skirted, it is clear that such an agreement would be rejected by the majority of those it would aim to control with unpredictable consequences.

An early indication of that unfolded on Monday when as many as 1,500 migrants from the Idomeni refugee camp, acting on flyers handed out by an unknown group, sought to make their way on foot to an unfenced part of the Greek-Macedonian border, wading through treacherous rapids in the process.

Watch video 01:12

Life in Idomeni's refugee camp

The widely-reported incident not only cost three people their lives but also created an ongoing diplomatic furore between the two countries. And what appears to have prompted many refugees to attempt the untested route was the threat in the flyer that if they stayed in Greece they would be sent back to Turkey under the scheme proposed at the last EU summit.

While that may be little more than a rumor at this point, in the idle hothouses of refugee camps rumors can be powerful. And should they be replaced by something more tangible, it is unlikely that the migrants and refugees, after already having suffered so much to get to the Greek camps, would meekly stay put and await their fates.

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